If the turn of the year is a time of year-end round-ups, it’s also a time of looking forward to the What’s Next. And if there is a line that is ripe and ready for a big 2007, it’s Church + State. Their distinctive little dresses, leggings, separates, and cropped jackets for women, jackets and shirts for men have clean, modern lines with cute, idiosyncratic details.
Finalists in women’s ready-to-wear at the 2006 Gen Art Styles International competition, Church + State were one of two lines mentioned in the WWD article on the event as “worthy competitors,” for their, “two sweetly Mod-ish cream-colored frocks” out of a field of dozens.
A skirt plays a big role in the story of Church + State, both as a launching point and a statement of where they are now. It was a skirtthat brought the two together (both as companions and design partners) after they’d been friends for years. And it is a skirt from their fall 06 collection that summarizes where the line is now. The wool skirt is draped on each hip with two side-cowls that make an amazing, relaxed take on volume while the back of the skirt features a little curved piece of horizontal piping from which tiny gathers fall. It’s this kind of typically unusual detail for which Church + State have become known, the kind of detail (like their covered buttons—sometimes clusters of them—and raw-edged bias-cut ruffles) that compels you to look again.
Spring looks like trapeze tunics and little shifts embellished with layers of little ruffles just haphazard enough to have an edge over smart little leggings finished with Church + State signature self-covered buttons. And look for further experiments with unexpected draping.
We met Nathaniel Crissman and Rachel Turk recently in their live/work space in SE Portland. There’s a Marcel Wanders carafe on the coffee table, the smart, tailored black-and-red plaid men’s quasi-military jacket (with two rows of fabric-covered buttons) Nathaniel recently designed for himself over the back of a chair. The long cutting table dominates the next room.
What did the GenArt experience do for you? How did it change things?
R: Well, it opened our eyes to the way things could be for us.
N: It got us to spend some time in New York, walking around, visiting boutiques, getting really positive reactions to our designs that we were wearing.
How did you begin working together?
Rachel: We’d known each other since 6th grade, went to high school together. We’d always been friends.
Nathaniel: She’d been away at school. We got together at Christmas. I made her a skirt she liked. It was based on her favorite skirt, but I kind-of tricked it out. At the time we were listening to a lot of Ben Harper and …
R: …and he embroidered the lyric all the way around the inside of the hem.
N: …and she loved it and said, “Let’s make a million of these!” I was in the apparel program at the Art Institute, and there was an open call for a benefit fashion show. In six months we had a name and a collection. After the show, we took the collection to Seaplane (Portland’s seminal independent boutique). That was four years ago.
PD: But how did you start working together? What made you decide to collaborate besides the fact that you were in love?
N: Well, yes being in love had something to do with it. But it didn’t cross my mind not to. I’ve always appreciated her aesthetic sense. She was always a good dresser. I would always ask her opinion about things. And besides, when we got together, I was still learning. I wasn’t set in where I was going or wanted to go.
We have a very similar aesthetic. It helps us when we’re doing something, we both know when something is good, when we’ve nailed it.
So tell me about your process now. How do you work together?
R: We both work from sketches. Pick key pieces for the collection and design around that. We always have too many ideas. We’ll say, “Well maybe we can use something like this next season.” They keep piling up…we’re out to Spring 08 now.
N: Our design process is still pretty organic. Usually we’ll start with design elements and both go play with them. Or we’ll have separate ideas we want to use and we try to mesh them.
R: If we do have different ideas, we sometimes try to explore them on our own.
N: Especially if the other one of us isn’t sold on the idea. Sometimes the ideas in a sketch…I can’t get the piece how I want it (or can’t explain it the way I want to Rachel) so I have to make it up.
We may have a sketch that we’re working with and we’ll go to find fabric for it. Then we might find another fabric next to it that inspires something else. When we get down to the nitty gritty, we do sketches to show the other person and go from there.
So does one person shepherd his or her idea through the process? Or do both of you work on all of the ideas?
N: We do work together, but up until the very end of the design process, it’s still like, “Are we going to do my idea? Is it going to make it?” But by the time we present the collection we don’t think of it as hers or mine. We pretty much forget who did what.
We can’t imagine working together if we weren’t also “together.” We can be brutally honest with one another.
R: It must be hard not to be on that level where you can be so honest, so that you can do what’s right and not come out hating the project in the end.
Your line was originally called “anther. pistil.” How did you choose the name and why did you change it to Church + State?
N: Well Rachel had been an environmental science major.
R: And it reflected that we were making boys and girls clothes, and the two of us…it was more conceptual.
N: But there was a lot of confusion about the name. Getting people to spell it right…people’s first reaction was, “what?” It was all lower case with two periods. It just never was printed right.
R: And there is another line of hats called Pistil. Oh, and once someone wrote about it as “another pistol”!
N: So as our aesthetic evolved, it made sense to have a name that reflected that. And Church + State…
R: …when we hit on that, we knew it was right.
All of your pieces have great memorable names. Your Spring 06 collection was called “the happys, the sads, and the buttermilks” and had pieces like the pale-blue quilted “south by southeast” and the peach knit “cupcake.” Where do the names come from?
R: Sometimes they’re spontaneous, like Nathaniel looked at this check fabric we were using and said, “check, please.” And sometimes, we pull from a list I keep in my sketchbook where we brainstorm names. For a while we were doing 2-by-2 names like “bread + butter” and “heaven + earth”.
“god + country” “sixes + sevens”
R: I like that facet of having a name for a piece. It reflects its design, adds to it, to its charm.
N: Sometimes we attach a name to a garment because of its aesthetic, sometimes its just a cute name we like. Like we had this idea about a Southern barbecue so there was a “gravy” dress and “grits.”
R: People hold onto the names. I just recently had a woman ask if we had anything new like the “Preacher’s daughter” because she loved it so much.
How do you talk about your work? How do you describe it?
R: Well we’ve kind of boiled it down to charming, pretty, and wearable. Another article just quoted us as saying, “We just want to make pretty clothes.” And that’s true but…
N: But that’s not all.
N: Authentic. It’s more of a feeling. We haven’t been able to articulate it really. There are feelings we have about the clothes. And when we do come up with words to describe the clothes, we want the verbal to match the visual. And I think if you see it, you’ll get it, but I don’t know that the words can say what the clothes say.
R: We have certain things we use, like bias, layered ruffles and fabric-covered buttons. The perfect Church + State garment is a combination of aesthetic—that first rush of seeing it on the hangar; fit, it has to fit right; and quality and construction. We see our customer looking inside the garment to see how its finished.
Where is your line right now?
R: Seaplane in Portland and Impulse in Seattle. We’ve realized that the shops that would be good fits for us are few and far between which was kind of surprising.
PD: So where do you go from here?
R: I’m working on our business plan.
N: I think it’s going to come for us incrementally. We’re concerned about not getting ahead of ourselves. When we come out, we want to make sure our work is what we want it to be.
R: We also want to make sure our work is accessible.
N: But we’re ready to make the next move. For a while we were thinking we wanted to build capital to be able to make the next move…to contract out the sewing.
R: We’d still do all the patternmaking, but we could only sew for two or three more accounts. We’ve talked to a factory in NY.
N: Her dream is to find this family that would do our sewing for us, love it like we do.
R: I have a background in production. I did design and production at a mass market lingerie company. The company was so small we did everything, merchandising, everything.
N: For near future, we need a baby step. Need someone to do sewing for us. And we need to get our fabric situation right…price, but also to have the resource set up so that we have a reliable source of fabric to be able to go back and get as much of the sample fabric as we need.
R: Eventually we’d like to have our own store…stores.
N: We see in the next six months our website will come online, we’ll have our look book out for fall that will include some of our spring pieces as well. And we’ll be ready to talk with some of the boutiques that have been interested in our line.